Occurring in the deep chill of December, Winter Solstice is alive with magic, the appearance of angels, brotherhood among men, and hope for peace on earth. It’s that moment when the axial tilt of the planet’s polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star it orbits, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Significant to ancient man because of the uncertainty of surviving winter with its threat of starvation or freezing. The Winter Solstice is the reversal of the sun’s ebbing presence in the heavens and is associated with the birth and rebirth of the sun god, source of all life.
Diagram of Planet's Movement
The Winter Solstice dawned cold and hard in Northern Arizona this year with a sharp wind driving the temperature far below normal. I was working at Cocopah North that day and among the people who came were two Navajos, one a medicine man who had driven down from the reservation to buy shells.
(We carry shells, in addition to beads, as they are needed by Native Americans for certain healing ceremonies and in the construction of jewelry. See previous blogs about shells in Indian trade.)
An hour after they left, an elderly Native American man came shuffling in, leaning on his cane. The tiny man, dressed only in a Phoenix Suns baseball cap, jeans and a windbreaker, looked to be about ninety years old. He tried to communicate with me but he spoke no English. I recognized the Navajo dialect but couldn’t understand him. He had a few English words and said, “Cold,” making the unmistakable gesture of shivering. I ran in the back room and grabbed a quilt to wrap around his shoulders. The weight of it almost sent him reeling so I gestured that he should come sit at the beading table but he didn’t want to leave the front of the gallery and continued to fix his intense gaze on the street, as if looking for someone. I brought him a bottle of water and a chair so he could sit there and began to call around town to see if I could find a Navajo speaker. People who came in the store treated it as an unexpected honor to have this ancient Indian wrapped in a patchwork quilt perched in the middle of the gallery.
Navajo Sandpainting are used in Healing Ceremonies
I began to stress about what I should do and called Audrey Waite, our business manager, to come down and help me out. Meanwhile, my friend, the writer Tamworth Grice, dropped in and had the brilliant idea to go online and find the phone number for the Navajo Tribe’s health service. She reached them and put the social worker on the phone with him. The social worker told Tamworth that he had come down with friends to buy shells and had being waiting in the back of their pick up truck when he had to relieve himself and went into the woods behind the building. When he returned the truck was gone and he managed to make it into our gallery.
Navajo Matron and Pick Up Truck
So now we have Tamworth, Audrey and I trying to care for him. In comes a doctor from LA, a specialist in geriatrics, and we tell him what’s happening. He instructs us to bring a cushion for his chair and proceeds to give him a back massage and wraps his quilt more snuggly. The old man makes a gesture of eating and tries to give us two dollars which we refuse. I suggest that Audrey get him a hamburger but she, sensibly, suggests soup since he has no teeth. Ken’s Creekside Restaurant in the plaza sends him a bowl of their excellent southwestern chili chicken soup with bread, compliments of the chef.
He won’t leave his place near the window so we clear off a small table and set up his meal on it. The man, despite his plight, maintains a quiet dignity, an unsmiling yet serene reserve that tells us his many years have taught him to survive such inconvenient episodes. I feel that I’ve made a major breakthrough when he gives me a fleeting smile.
By now, several friends arrive with season’s greetings and we decide it’s definitely time for tea. All of us, and it’s a growing number, have a little tea party and Bobby Monroe (as we now know his American name) enjoys the tea and likes dipping the bread into his soup.
Then a police officer arrives and offers to take him to a hotel but I know that would traumatize him and he might not connect to the people he came with if he leaves here. He was adamant with the social worker that this was the place he needed to be. I tell the officer that he’ll be fine with us.
On the Navajo Reservation
Audrey returns to the office where there’s a frantic call from Mr. Monroe’s son-in-law, the driver of the pick up. We learn that Mr. Monroe was sleeping in the back of the king cab which had tinted windows while they came in to buy shells. They didn’t notice he wasn’t there until they got to Winslow, about an hour and a half’s drive from Sedona. They were on their way back to pick him up. We get the social worker on the phone again and she tells him his family is on the way back to get him.
Petroglyph at Canyon De Chelly on the Navajo Reservation
Hours pass. I finally reach his son-in-law on his cell phone and he tells me he’ll be there in about twenty minutes. I want to tell Mr. Monroe not to worry, that they’ll be there soon. Then, out of nowhere, two Navajo silversmiths, Sylvana and Randy Secatero, appear. They’d been waiting hours in Sedona for a dealer who was going to buy their jewelry and stood them up. They were counting on the money to get back to New Mexico. They didn’t even have gas money. Their work is amazing and I buy it all! I trade Tamworth one of their bracelets that she adores as partial payment for editing my forthcoming e-book, Waiting for Mr. Wu.
Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona
Sylvana tells Mr. Monroe that his family will be here soon. He tells her that he has to go to the bathroom. He’s not stable enough on his feet to walk all the way up to the plaza’s bathroom, so Sylvana enlists Randy to take him to the nearest gas station. Sylvana thanks me profusely for helping their ‘grandfather’ and offers not to leave town until the family arrives. As closing time nears and his ride hasn’t materialized, I decide if they don’t show up to take him home with me and leave a note on the door where to pick him up. Then his son-in-law comes running in, looking very distressed, to be greeted by Mr. Monroe who’s placidly drinking tea and being cared for by several women.
Old Patchwork Quilt Similiar to the One Given to Mr. Monroe
Mr. Monroe clung to the patchwork quilt so I gave it to him, along with a shell that Navajos favor for a certain ceremony. His son-in-law told us that he is a high medicine man, an honored and revered elder. He tells us that Mr. Monroe blesses us. Then Mr. Monroe leaves, wrapped up in his quilt, and we’re left to ponder this auspicious moment at the time of solstice.